8 January 2014

Jambo, jambo bwana.
Habari gani.
Nzuri sana.
Wageni wakaribishua.
Kilimanjaro, hakuna matata!

– a Swahili song welcoming guests to the mountain

We packed all our winter weather climbing gear into two backpacks that our guide Mwinyi strapped to the roof of the 12-passenger van that would take us to the Lemosho gate—our starting point. The van was already packed with ten other local guys speaking Swahili. It took me a minute to realize that this would be our climbing crew: 2 guides, 1 chef, 1 waiter, and 6 porters. The thought of being pampered by a ten-man crew was a little emasculating at first, but we DID pay about $1,600 each for this trip (cheap for a Kili climb), so I figured the privilege of not carrying our own tents and gear was well justified. In retrospect, 90 kilometers of hiking later, I’m incredibly grateful for the luxury.

After three hours of dusty, unpaved mountain roads, we arrived at the gate to register and organize our gear. The porters unloaded everything from the roof—tents, chairs, sleeping bags, backpacks, cooking equipment, propane, and heaps of fresh fruits, vegetables, maize flour, and rice—and packed it all into tarp duffel bags and woven baskets, which they carried on their heads for the remainder of the trek. We chatted with a few of the other mzungus (gringo in Swahili), who all seemed to be young Americans either on winter holidays from school or doing some sort of volunteering in Africa. Then began the climb.

We started at the western edge of the mountain in the middle of an artificial pine forest, surrounded by local Maasai and Chagga villages. We hiked through potato farms with beautiful purple flowers reminiscent of the Peruvian Andes. Andrew, our Chagga guide led us into a dense rainforest teeming with birds and monkeys. We passed jungle elephant footprints, but never had an encounter.

Listening to the cacophony of animal noises and bird songs throughout the hike, I couldn’t help but think about how incredibly well adapted each animal was to the ecosystem in terms of sound. Each of the dozens of bird species we encountered had a completely different call that not only sounded different from the others, but also traveled differently through the canopy because of its unique resonance. There were high-pitched whistles that only traveled a few meters, low, reverberating caws that penetrated the thick vegetation, and ear-splitting screams that couldn’t be missed for miles. As obvious as it may seem, it never occurred to me how vital the actual composition of a forest is in determining the nature of the bird calls that exist within it. A social duck on open water requires a very different type of sound to communicate than a lonesome songbird in a thick jungle with masses of leaves that would completely muffle a duck’s quack. And then there were the monkeys, which had a distinct variety of sounds that changed as we approached and then continued past. The mathematical vibrations of the birdsong grammar and the intentionally shifting vocabulary of the monkeys’ warnings only helped to reinforce my conviction that humans are not the only animals with language.

But then what really makes human language any different from animal language? Perhaps human language is unique in that it contains abstract concepts, while animal language communicates simpler things like “Where are you?” “I’m here!” or, “People! Watch out!” But what gives us the power of abstraction? Our brain? What makes the human brain more advanced? Maybe having a more developed cerebral cortex gives us a better grasp of time than other animals have. Maybe by understanding the implications of time better, we can better conceptualize things that happened long ago or that might happen in the future, including abstract things that have never happened before. In this sense, maybe the human brain is just a time machine. Whatever it may be, to me, spending time in the wild always makes me feel connected to other forms of life in a way that invalidates the assumption that humans are innately superior creatures. We’re all just well adapted to our own spheres of life.

After about three hours (a surprisingly short hike), we reached the Big Tree camp, where our tent had already been set up and hot tea with popcorn was waiting for us. Our chef made us a shockingly delicious meal—a trend that continued throughout the week. Any time a porter wasn’t paying attention, ravens would swoop into the camp and steal food: loaves of bread, meat, whatever. They formed hunting strategies like a pack of wolves. The porters weren’t amused. I’m telling you, these birds were damn smart.

The next day we left just after sunrise for one of our longest hikes of the trip. Since our itinerary was scheduled for 7 days instead of 8, we skipped the next camp, Shira 1, and continued on to Shira 2. Our day started with a brisk walk through the remainder of the rainforest, climbing a ridge until we reached a patch of tall trees with dangling moss that created a cavern of vegetation that seemed more appropriate on a plantation lane in the Deep South rather than on the side of a snow capped mountain.

Our guides explained how the local Chagga people used the various plants we were passing. This one for clearing worms out of your stomach. That one for insect bites. Another one for upset stomachs, but watch out, there’s a strong side effect for men—uncontrollable erections that take “three or four women” to remedy. But all humor aside, humans have been using plant-based remedies throughout our history. I’ve encountered herbal medicine in Alaska, the Amazon, the Alps, Africa, and everywhere between. That these connections are disappearing rapidly, either due to modern people losing ties with elders who once knew their local forests intimately, or through deforestation that destroys the plants our ancestors relied upon, is a tragic loss of collective human heritage.

We left the forest and entered the moorland, which comprised mountainous terrain covered with dry brush and short trees. This allowed for long vistas out onto the savannah beyond the mountain and patchwork farmland in the villages below the slopes. Finally, we reached the Shira plateau, which looked like a cross between Nevada and Bolivia. Short green bushes, golden grasses, and the breathtaking snowcap of the Uhuru summit, which until now had been shrouded in clouds. Our first glimpse! It looked impossibly high and incredibly far away.

Our camp that night was completely exposed to the elements. High, freezing, windy. As the sun set, Michael and I both walked up to some ledges away from camp to watch the light on the glaciers. I found a good volcanic rock to lean against, put in some earplugs to block out the wind, and I meditated, thinking about love and beauty and the grandeur of the harsh landscape. The stars that night, were overwhelmingly crisp. I froze my ass off.

The following morning we hiked very very slowly up to our highest altitude yet, over 15,000 ft. The oxygen was starting to thin noticeably, and I was glad that I had been taking diamox to reduce the effects of altitude sickness. We passed a rock with a plaque on it in memory of a man who had recently died at that spot. Although everything seemed pleasant and peaceful in the sun for us, our guide reminded us that more people fail to reach the summit than actually make it. When the weather turns on the mountain, and it starts to rain/snow or the temperature drops rapidly, if you aren’t prepared with dry clothes and shelter, your life can be in serious jeopardy. He reiterated his mantra to us: walk polepole (very slowly), eat well, and drink LOTS of water.

Climbing KilimanjaroWe arrived at the Lava Tower, our highest point yet, for a quick lunch break and some altitude acclimatization. The weather changed. We shivered behind a wall of boulders trying to shield ourselves from the bitter cold and damp fog that blinded us from the view, which was supposed to be incredible. After the obligatory 45 minutes at high altitude, we continued on, descending through a foggy valley towards our next camp, on the other end of a forest of some of the strangest looking plants I’ve ever seen—a mix between a saguaro cactus and a cockatoo’s head. Huge too. When the sun broke through at camp, we saw the stunning scenery around us. Above, the summit. Below, a sheer cliff dropping into a lush river valley that led to farmland and villages. Surrounding us, the forest of Dr. Seuss trees. Ahead of us, the Barranco wall, a seemingly sheer cliff of maybe 1,000 feet that we would have to climb the next morning.

As it turns out, the cliff was far more like climbing out of the Grand Canyon than it was like mountaineering. Long, but not very technical. Not fun if you’re afraid of heights, but climbing with your hands was only necessary a few times. The rest was just a tight series of switchbacks that eventually led to the top of the wall, where we were struck by the most incredible view of the summit yet.

Our camp for the night was, again, very exposed. A number of different trails linked up at this point, so there were far more people here than at any previous camp. While the sun was still shining, I set up a folding chair facing the mountain, and I put in some ear buds to listen to music while I watched in awe as the clouds started slowly rolling up the side of the slopes forming a ballet of water vapor in slow motion that rose towards a peak that still looked exhilaratingly impossible to reach. Ravens circled schemingly for food, climbing and diving with eddies in the wind. Couples flirted in the warm sun. Porters joked with each other in Swahili while preparing dinner and setting up camp. A park ranger registered newcomers to camp. I climbed a boulder to watch the whole scene unfold. People coming together from all over the world, pushing themselves physically and mentally in a way that unites them for this brief moment in an incredibly human experience.

The final night. We reached our last camp after only hiking for a few hours. We ate a big lunch, drank lots of tea, and tried to fall asleep around 6pm. Midnight came, and our guide came to wake us up for our summit climb in the dark. 6 hours, 14 kilometers in distance, 19,700 feet in altitude, straight up a steep mountain face, pitch black, 0°F. The stars were orgasmic with such thin air and zero light pollution. As we climbed, our water bottles froze solid. We couldn’t eat anything because at that altitude, your stomach stops digesting. Although not required, an oxygen mask would have been VERY nice. The seconds passed like minutes, and the minutes passed like hours. One foot in front of the other. Breathe in, breathe out. Six hours of this with only a headlamp to see where your feet are stepping. Tedious. There’s no scenery to keep you engaged. You can’t see the summit to motivate you to take another step. Our guides had a lot of confidence in our strength, so they led us past the other groups. We must have passed 60 people on our way up. Every time we raced ahead of another group, our lungs screamed for us to slow down. Any over exertion at this altitude is immediately punished. It wasn’t so much physically demanding as it was disorienting and fucking cold. Michael, who wasn’t taking diamox, had to stop twice to vomit on the side of the trail. He gave himself no option but to summit, so he pushed through it. We could both feel the altitude in the tension in our heads. I put wool socks over my gloves to prevent my fingers from freezing. My face was numb.

Then, like a miracle, the stars began to fade into a dimly blue sky. Over the horizon crept a sliver of orange and red like a beacon peeking through the distant clouds. Our feet crunched against dry snow and volcanic gravel. The silvery shimmer of glaciers appeared below us as we reached the ridge of the grand volcano’s crater and realized that we had reached the top. After ten more minutes of walking in a frozen daze, still desperate for heat and oxygen, we finally reached the sign that read “congratulations!” We had reached the summit of Uhuru peak. We were literally standing on the highest point in all of Africa.

Michael’s altitude symptoms were concerning to our guide, so after conquering the peak, the two of them bolted back to base camp, literally running down the scree to get back to a safer altitude. Mwinyi and I slowly walked along the craters rim while I tried to capture in film the indescribable beauty of sunrise over the sea of clouds below. The beauty and the pain of frozen body parts caused a few tears to flow from the corners of my eyes. The only way I can truly convey the majesty of it all is to recommend that you play Beethoven’s 7th allegretto with your eyes closed and try to just feel it. There’s really no better way to describe it.

Afterwards, the two of us skied our way back to base camp on loose sand and gravel. What took us six hours to climb only took us an hour and a half to descend. At base camp, Michael and I were both suffering from terrible headaches, so our guides led us down the mountain further, on a trail we hadn’t taken up. The further we descended, the better we felt. We suggested to the guides that we just hike all the way back to town that day, rather than spending another night on the mountain. After a grueling 20 mile summit to gate descent, we treated ourselves to a hot shower and a pizza dinner, celebrating the most physically challenging accomplishment either of us had ever overcome.

If you’re considering a Kilimanjaro climb or a Tanzanian Safari, I HIGHLY recommend that you use Kili Heroes. Our guides and experience were top notch. They’re locally owned and operated, and there rates are very competitive.


My Kili Climbing Crew


Our bus from Nairobi to Moshi, Tanzania—the base for climbing Mt. Kilimanjaro—passed through Maasai country. The Maasai are people of postcards and travel brochures. Flowing red capes, spears, elongated earlobes, and stoic dispositions. It’s hard to fathom that in the day of the iPhone and Whole Foods, that there are still people who live this way. There are.

We left the outskirts of the city, where unfinished cinder block and red brick homes stood beside roadside shops with tacky logos pulled from the internet, advertising the goods within, reminding me of Bolivia, or Kosovo, or basically anywhere on the outskirts of a city in the truly developing world. Here, however, unlike many other tropical regions I’ve visited where the humidity, heat, insects, mildew, and diseases make human life a constant struggle, everything about this landscape shouted “humans”! This is, after all, the place where humans evolved in the first place, standing upright to walk through the savannah grass between discontinuous forest as the climate became drier and forest cover turned to prairie. It feels SO human here. The trees, the temperature, the weather, the fruit, the flowers, the smells and sounds of everything. Cities to Serengeti. Beautiful.

We rode into ngong hill country where savannah grass plains were interrupted by iconic savannah trees and tiny clusters of thatched huts behind the bushes. An old woman with a flowing blue cape walked along the road with a long wooden cane, reminding me of Rafiki from the Lion King. (By the way, rafiki means “friend” in Swahili, and simba means “lion”.) We stopped for a quick break at a little village that had a Maasai gift shop for passing tourists. I wish I could have taken a picture inside, but I didn’t want to be disrespectful. Rows of incredible wood carvings, paintings of the savannah, statues of warriors, a basket of spears. This was the most authentic gift shop I’d ever seen, and I was honored to make a $5 purchase of a few small carvings, knowing that although it wasn’t much, it was helping the local artists in some way.

The paved road stopped once we reached the disorganized, but surprisingly calm Kenya-Tanzania border. Elderly Maasai women grabbed at us while we tried to get our passports stamped, trying to cover us with “free” silver and copper jewelry that they would later try to guilt us into overpaying for. A border cop literally beat them back before they could have their way with us. They laughed and smiled playfully. I was horrified. These women had balls. (Not literally… well, maybe… who knows.)

IMG_3065Continuing on through the dusty plain of the Tanzanian Masai country, larger mountains and volcanoes appeared on the horizon. Goats walked in herds across the road, completely oblivious to us. Two Maasai children sat under an acacia tree, the boy slamming his spear on the ground while telling the girl a story about something I only wish I could have heard. What fantastic tales or mundane trivia could that boy be sharing with such animated gestures on the side of a highway in the midday heat on the first day of the new year?

Off in the distance, the grand mountain revealed its base—Kilimanjaro—an ancient volcano that formed ages ago as the rift between two continental plates spread apart, allowing magma to explode to the earth’s surface, and cooling to form a solid cone that stands now as the highest peak on the whole continent, at over 19,000 ft. Michael and I looked at each other with a knowing smile, anticipating our week-long climb to its summit. The smile turned to a laugh when we realized that we had made a mistake. The mountain we were looking at was Mt. Meru. Kilimanjaro was to the east, rising above the clouds, and MUCH taller.

As we neared our destination, we passed through a Maasai village where a mzungu (white guy) held the hands of two young local Maasai kids, while a group of laughing youngsters followed in a group closely behind them. Walking from school? Just taking a stroll? Was he there through the Peace Corps? Mission trip? Just volunteering? Did he live there because he worked nearby? Who knows? However, seeing something like that does make me a bit uncomfortable. At some point in that process there’s the assumption that those kids need his European wisdom. His American business knowledge. His English. His exposure to technology. His Christianity. That smile and those laughing children are masking a form of imperialism that makes me cringe. As Roxxy’s Malawian friend who was visiting Nairobi for the weekend from the UK put it, “Europe may have the technology, the efficiency, and the comforts that we don’t have in Africa, but the quality of life in Africa—a place where we know our neighbors, we respect our elders, we sing our stories to our children, and we enjoy the serenity of a beautiful day—is far superior. I would take the African way any day.” Just think about that.

IMG_2757We spent the night with Roxxy’s friends, while her boyfriend was off to China with his job as an airplane engineer. The apartment was a few floors up in a gated building. The place was huge and modern. Her friends were incredibly well dressed and were ready to get drunk and go dancing. I played bartender, the guy from Zimbabwe played DJ, and everyone spent the evening dancing in the living room. I’ll summarize the night by recounting a conversation with one of the party guests and then by summarizing a fight that we had with a security guard outside the night club we went to after midnight.

Conversation with a Kenyan woman at the party (more like a lecture by the Kenyan woman):

(Paraphrased) Welcome to Kenya’s 1% of the 1%. What you’re seeing here is something that almost no Kenyan gets to experience. Most of us were educated in Europe, and most of us are either from the Luo or Kikuyu tribe. We have a love hate relationship, however, the Kikuyu are MUCH better dancers. White people are terrible dancers. Europeans have all these formal dances that they teach themselves because it’s so unnatural for them. A Waltz? What is that shit? That’s not dancing, that’s robots in a factory. Black people know how to dance from birth. It was never taught to us, it was just always around us. We hear the music, we take it for ourselves, we feel it, and we move. Our hips, our legs, our hands, our chests, our lips, we feel the music through all of them. The lips. Your passion is in your lips. Europeans have these skinny skinny lips. They can’t dance. They can’t kiss. They can’t make love. Africans have LIPS. We have passion. The farther north you go, the smaller the lips. Englishmen are the worst. I’ve never kissed a passionate Englishman, and I’ve never seen one with good lips. Mediterraneans have better lips. There they have passion. We Africans are all the same. Yes, we have different tribes and different languages and different cultures, but every time I meet an African anywhere around the world, we immediately understand each other. Childhood, becoming an adult, marriage, having children, becoming an elder. All Africans have the same phases in life, and we may call them different things, but they’re all the same in the end. (I tried to push her on this point to consider that maybe ALL humans, not just Africans, have the same stages in life, and that maybe we Europeans aren’t all that different at the core of it, but alcohol has its way of inducing stubbornness.)

Fight with the security guard at the night club:

When we got to the club, which we soon learned was a playground for Kenya’s wealthiest youngsters to see and be seen, rather than let loose and have a good time, I got out my phone to take a picture of the whole group of us before we went inside. A parking lot security guard came up to me and said “sorry, no photos.” Not wanting to start any trouble, I put away my phone. One of the girls went up to the guard and said “Who do you think you are telling us we can’t take pictures? What law are we breaking? This is a parking lot, not a museum!” He told her it was for the sake of security and safety. She responded “Taking a photo on New Years night is a threat to security? What about my human rights?” He responded, “what human rights are you talking about?” She said, “My freedom to assemble! My freedom of speech! My freedom to have fun! You’re being a dictator! This is not the colonial period, brother, why are you treating us this way? This is not the colonial period!” At this point, Roxxy the human rights lawyer stepped in: “Brother, maybe you are racist against my European friends?” “No, I’m not racist.” “Maybe you have a problem with women? You have authority as a security guard and you feel the need to flex your muscles, but why direct it at us? What is your bias against us?” The fight lasted for about twenty minutes. Michael and I watched in awe as the European-educated, wealthy Kenyan women battered the much lower class security guard into submission. He had clearly lost face and was furious. All I could do was stand back and watch, thinking about how ironic it was that these women were attempting to appeal to the guard’s sense of post-colonial liberation through justification with the very colonial values they were celebrating liberation from. Freedom of speech? Freedom to assemble? Human rights? Are these not the lessons of the British classrooms where these girls were educated? Is it too hard to see that this African-educated, or uneducated, man had no innate sense of what they were referring to? Whose values are more relevant? I’m not arguing against human liberty, but the irony of using British values to celebrate the absence of British control was almost too much to handle. After the fight was over, I jokingly suggested that the security guard take our picture. He did, clearly confused. We went inside. The room smelled of tension. Race tension and wealth tension. There was no dancing, just pageantry. It was fascinating.

Kenya: Welcome to Africa

31 December 2013

I was greeted at the Nairobi airport by a human musk that filled my nostrils with curiosity at why we Americans find it so important to eliminate any trace of our natural odor. Are jasmine and sandalwood really more enticing than the chemical/microbial ecosystems we’ve evolved to project our identities and attract each other? I’m not convinced.

After meeting my friend Michael from Austria, we left the airport to meet our host, Roxxy. The next three days would be a whirlwind of culture, music, risk, booze, food, and mosquitoes. Driving on the wrong side of the road, she shuttled us through slums and urban savannah to her boyfriend Tito’s gated compound, where they had been preparing us a traditional meal of ugali, kale, and goat. All to be eaten with the hands.

Over beer in the living room, the four of us sprinted through the pleasantries and got to the meat of why we really love meeting people from different cultures: insight and truth. What’s the deal with blacks in America? Why do they use the “n” word? Why do African Americans still see Africans as foreigners, and why can’t a Kenyan use the “n” word too? Let’s talk slavery. Let’s talk colonialism. The British REALLY fucked Africa up. But that’s only one of the problems. Imagine forming a country where 40 something tribes exist with different languages, cultures, traditions, ethnicities, etc… Do you really expect a Maasai warrior to adapt smoothly to a British education system that teaches only marginally relevant information to his traditional way of life? How can you Europeans deal with snow? Is it the same texture as rice?

Tito and Roxxy were from the Luo tribe, descendants of pastoralists from the upper Nile region of South Sudan (a brand new country with equally arbitrary boundaries). Roxxy’s father had been a politician, making her family far wealthier than most Kenyans. She went to university in the UK and got her masters in Italy. She spoke English perfectly. We soon realized that we were experiencing Kenya from the perspective of their version of the 1%.


The next morning she drove us to the giraffe center on the edge of the city, where we were able to walk right up to the giant spotted horse monsters, reach out with food pellets in our hands, and feed and pet them. The surroundings couldn’t have been more stereotypically African: acacia trees with wide, flat canopies, grassland out in the distance, and a grand estate house reminiscent of the European explorer fantasy that, as an American, I’ve never really understood. Jumanji? The Constant Gardener? You Brits are strange creatures.

The city. Wow. Chaos in a way I’ve never experienced it. Surprisingly, it wasn’t that hot for being just south of the equator. When I say there are no traffic rules, I mean: There. Are. No. Traffic. Rules. Right side, left side, fast, slow, stopping in the middle of the road. The drivers here seem to have no idea other people are on the road. But back to the 40+ tribes thing. Humans are programmed to look out for themselves, their immediate family, their extended family, their “tribe”, their nation, their race, etc… These values express themselves differently in different cultures. Trying bring together people from many different tribes and expecting them to see each other as equals that deserve the same consideration as a family member is like getting on a crowded New York subway car and expecting people to offer you their seat out of respect for some higher appreciation that we, as humans, are all connected. Possible, but not to be expected. Roxxy’s theory was that people are focused on their own well being, and the idea that they could be inconveniencing someone else would never cross their mind. It’s impossible to tell through a car window if the person you’re cursing out is of the same tribe, but once that category is clarified, everything changes. “My brother! My sister!”

This translates to politics. Imagine if the Republican and Democratic parties were tied to families, and that when leaders were elected they were expected to give back only to their own family, with no consideration of greater national good. (This might not sound too different, but try to imagine it in its most extreme form, without even an attempt to govern holistically.) Now imagine 40+ parties! all representing different segments of society that don’t care at all about the other families. Does this sound like a reasonable system of government? Are European values and frameworks really appropriate here?

Roxxy and her friends spent hours arguing over the potential of Kenya versus the reality of Kenya. I felt like I was sitting in an American global development class where naive Americans were theorizing about “how to fix Africa” and world peace, while sipping on grande double mocha frappuccinos. Roxxy works in human rights law. A glaringly Western occupation. Is the right way really to educate African children in European values and hope that when they return home, they will fix their counties’ problems? Or is this just contributing to the problem? Is this another form of cultural imperialism? I find it interesting that the Declaration of Human Rights was drafted in a room in a European building, dominated by Europeans, most of whom had probably never stepped foot outside the Western world. Driving through the Nairobi streets where Nilotic faces met Khoisan faces, Bantu dialects mixed with Arabic, and Muslims bowed in prayer near churches, outside of which women carried vegetables through the streets while suffering the lifelong pain resulting from childhood genital mutilation. There’s more to it than “human rights.”

However, there is a real economy here. Markets function. People desire quality food, products that makes their lives easier, access to healthy lifestyles, and the transcendence that comes from human creativity. It’s tough in a place where nothing gets accomplished without a bribe or a family member in the government, but it’s possible. I’d even argue that their M-Pesa banking system is far more egalitarian and accessible than anything in the Western world, where a goat herder in the countryside can sell his goat at a rural market and receive payment from a butcher’s mobile phone (without an internet connection) in a matter of seconds, all cashless.

This place is real. It’s vibrant. Its people celebrate life and worry about their future. When Kenya some day works through its quirks, it’ll be a force to be reckoned with, and I just hope I’m around to see it happen.